Jonah’s “Time Out”

Today we discussed Jonah 2, Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the big fish.  Imagining the condition inside the big fish, we thought of Jonah’s possible reactions.  How could he breathe?  What would he eat?  Wouldn’t it be scary to be eaten by a big fish?

The tone of the poem, rather than fearful, struck a balance between despair and hope.  On the one hand, Jonah felt despair at the bottom of Sheol, the land of the dead, and the bottom of the deep, with bars closing in on him and seaweed in his hair.  On the other hand, Jonah believed that God would hear his prayer, that it would rise up to the Temple of the Lord.

God separated Jonah the farthest possible distance from himself.  When we picture the temple in the ancient Near East, it sits atop the highest point around.  (Imagine the Acropolis in Athens.)  Jonah lay in the bottom of the ocean, down at the base of the mountains.  While Jonah tried to escape the Lord by traveling to Tarshish, the Lord sent him even farther away from himself.  Jonah despaired.

Why would God send Jonah so far away from himself?  For most children, the answer was clear: to make Jonah think about why he had acted incorrectly.  When I read chapter 2, replacing every reference to the underworld and the bottom of the sea with references to time-out, the children giggled in recognition.  Just like the children sitting in time-out, Jonah sat deprived of everything except his own thoughts.  (We agreed that time-out in your room with all your toys is not time out like sitting in the corner or sitting on the stairs.)  God intended to separate Jonah from himself, forcing Jonah to sit alone.  Then the children’s strong desire for their parents to release them from time-out, paralleled Jonah’s desire to re-ascend.  Jonah called out to God, and he heard him.  We also saw that God does not “look out for” Jonah–he listens for him.

The children’s reactions to being let out of time out varied.  Some felt happy and relieved to be released; others felt angry at the one who sent them to time-out.  Nevertheless, like our last discussion, we agreed that obeying God out of love is preferable to obeying God out of fear.  Next time, we will see how Jonah reacts to being let out–vomitedout–of time-out.

Swimming with the Fishes

In this week’s class we saw the metaphors of entrapment from chapter 1 realized in Jonah’s predicament in chapter 2. Sinking head first and entangled (Jonah 2:5) Jonah found himself cut off and bottomed out in the sea (קצב/qetseb, 2:6) with no chance of escape–a bit like sending a child to stand in the corner. Has Jonah changed his ways or is his prayer simply the quiet after a child’s tantrum? Even the most resistant child will stop fighting for a time once they realize the parent is willing to wait it out.

It is good that Jonah has recognized his dependence on God but it is no credit to him. Had God not sent him “to the corner” of the sea, he would still be running away from Dad as fast and as far as his money would take him. (1:3) Like a teenager with a broken car or a new parent unable to change a diaper, Jonah called on his father for help and he answered him. To whom, then, is the credit due?

To further complicate the integrity of Jonah’s prayer, we find the prophet shunning “those who cling to worthless idols,” and who “turn away from God’s love for them.” (2:8) To whom is Jonah referring? After all, it was the pagan sailors, not Jonah, who sought the Lord, and it was Jonah who turned away from God in chapter 1. (1:3)

To borrow an American idiom, Jonah was “swimming with the fishes,” and his only way out was to accept a loan from his father with all the strings attached. He may be willing to yield to Dad in his time of need, but the real test will come when he is faced with his original assignment. Should God save Jonah? Conversely, should he destroy Nineveh, that wicked city?

More next week.

Breaking Crayons

The goal with our youngest children at Ephesus School this past weekend was to give them the opportunity of simply hearing the Bible story from beginning to end. (The content of Scripture rivals the best fairy tales and Mother Goose stories. PLUS, there are no illustrations which allows the child to imagine the story from the words.) Jonah is a short book, packed with action and imagery. Some children listen well without any distractions, while others listen well when they can doodle. So, blank paper and a bucket of crayons were offered to the kids, ages 3-5, while the teacher read dramatically and the children listened.

After reading the entire story, we picked up where we left off last week with reviewing the story and checking for understanding. The events and lesson in chapter 4 which describes Jonah marking the best spot on the hillside for a grand show of fireworks–the destruction of Nineveh–and the subsequent shading and destruction of the plant, was at first difficult to grasp by our kindergartners. Nineveh had been evil and deserved to be destroyed, just as God said He would do. While Jonah waited, God provided shade for Jonah by appointing a plant to grow. But the next morning, God appointed a worm to destroy the plant. Why would God do this?

“May I see the crayon you’re using?” I asked one of the students. “What a nice color. It’s new and has a good point.  Sometimes it’s hard to share our crayons, especially when someone is mean to us and takes the crayons we want for our own drawing. Maybe those kinds of children shouldn’t be allowed to use crayons. Maybe they should be banned from the classroom!”

With that I snapped the crayon in two. And broke it again!

“What’s more important? The crayons, or the students who use them? What’s more important? The crayons you’re using, or your classmates with whom you should share?”

Wide-eyed and curious, two boys broke their crayons.

“Who gave you those crayons?”

“Yours, teacher,” was one reply, while another answered, “God.”

“That’s right. Are they yours to break? You may use them to draw and to share with your classmates.”

Put in a Bad Position

God puts people in hard positions our class saw as we discussed Jonah, chapter 1.  One problem we discussed affected the poor mariners.  They seemed to have their heart in the right place.  They wanted to please their gods–any god!–to survive the storm.  When they found out that Jonah was at fault, they asked what they could do to help the situation.  Upon finding out that they would have to drown their passenger, they rowed against hope towards shore.  What a position God put them in!  Obey God or save this poor, sleepy man!

One student reminded us of the situation of Abraham.  God forced him to decide between his deity and his child.  Like the sailors, Abraham chose God.  Nevertheless, God saved Jonah through appointing a whale, and saved Abraham by appointing a ram.  After putting these men in a difficult position, he brought them out again.

Jonah may have found himself in a worse position.  This was the second problem we discussed.  God wanted him to go to a dangerous area to say controversial things.  At first, the students thought that Jonah had chosen poorly by electing to flee from his calling.  Later, the students softened towards Jonah.  If they had been told to go break up a group of big kids at school who appeared to be up to no good, they would not want to be the ones to tell them so.  They identified with Jonah’s fear.  Ultimately, couldn’t God deliver this message himself, without forcing Jonah into such a position?

Another student suggested that if God had delivered the message himself, the Ninevites may have accepted the word only out of fear.  With Jonah as the mouthpiece, the Ninevites would have to decide based on faith.  I told them about a concept in Judaism, that repentance (“teshuvah” from the root mentioned before: “shuv”) out of fear does not take hold like repentance (“teshuvah”) out of love.  God gave the Ninevites the opportunity to repent (“shuv”) not out of fear, but out of faith.

God puts people in difficult positions, but waits patiently for them to choose well.

Role Reversal and Hypocrisy in Jonah: First Lesson with Adults at Ephesus School

In our first session with the adult group, we compared the functional role of Jonah as “ignoble preacher defiant of God” with that of the pagan sailors, whose behavior–in contrast with the prophet–served the intent of God’s instruction.  It was the captain of the boat, not Jonah, who feared the God of the Hebrews and looked to him for assistance. (Jonah 1:6) This type of role reversal is typical in Scripture and is given to shatter our self-righteous assumptions about each other.

Lest we idolize the sailors, the writers quickly turn the tides against the reader.  As the Gospel of Matthew explains, “no one is good” but God. (Matt 19:17)  Just as Jonah tried to pay his own way–supporting himself instead of accepting God’s provision–the sailors too found themselves rowing against the will of God. (Jonah 1:3, 1:13)  From the moment the Word of the Lord appears in verse one, all sides in Jonah are consigned to a “no win” scenario, best intentions aside.

Finally, from a position of hypocrisy and at his own risk,  Jonah preaches the Word of the Lord to the captain and his shipmates, offering a way forward for everyone. Matthew, who calls our attention to Jonah’s “sign” (the Word of the Lord) reminds us that since all men fall short, we are to emulate the teacher’s instructions, not his behavior. (Matt 12:39, 23:2)  In the end, it is Jonah’s proclamation of the “fear of the Lord” that will lead to salvation for all parties. (Jonah 1:9)

“Shuv” in Jonah: First lesson with youngest children at Ephesus School

Our youngest students, ages 6 and younger, enacted “shuv” from the story of Jonah. They traced the Hebrew letters for “shuv” which means “to turn or repent.” We have many characters turning in the story of Jonah: from the seamen who turned to Jonah’s God, to the large fish who turned Jonah around from Tarshish and delivered him to the shore of Ninevah, to the people of Ninevah who turned from their evil way, and even God who “repented of the evil which he said he would do to them; and he did not do it.” (Jonah 3:10)
We find that repentance may have less to do with the feeling in our hearts, and more to do with the direction of our feet and our action.
If you would like to join your children in their memory work, we are attempting to memorize chapter 2.

Teach Children

“Teach children to love true wisdom and they will possess wealth and glory such that money cannot provide. If a child learns a trade, or is highly educated for a lucrative profession, it is nothing compared to the art of detachment from money. If you want to make your child wealthy, teach him that the one who is truly rich does not desire great possessions, or surround himself with wealth.”

John Chrysostom

An Entreaty

“I also always entreat you, and do not cease entreating you, not only to pay attention here to what I say, but also when you are at home, to persevere continually in reading the divine Scriptures. When I have been with each of you in private, I have not stopped giving you the same advice. Do not let anyone say to me those vain words, worthy of heavy condemnation, ‘I cannot leave the courthouse, I administer the business of the city, I practice a craft, I have a wife, I am raising children, I am in charge of a household, I am a man of the world; reading the Scriptures is not for me, but for those who have been set apart, who have settled on the mountaintops, who keep this way of life continuously.’

What are you saying, man? That attending to the Scriptures is not for you, since you are surrounded by a multitude of cares? Rather it is for you more than for them. They do not need the help of the divine Scriptures as much as those do who are involved in many occupations…reading the Scriptures is a great means of security against sinning. The ignorance of Scripture is a great cliff and a deep abyss; to know nothing of the divine laws is a great betrayal of salvation.”

John Chrysostom, On Wealth and Poverty